If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
“Memphis” Rocks Ivoryton Playhouse
I haven't always been especially kind to the Ivoryton Playhouse, the venerable regional theatre that, during its glory years, claimed Katharine Hepburn as one of its many stars. And, like those good old days, every once in a while they do get it done really right at Ivoryton. That is definitely the case with its current production of "Memphis", a high-energy and audience pleasing Tony Award winner that shakes the upper rafters of the Playhouse for all its worth. Good for them.
"Memphis", which was named "Best Musical" in 2010, has an original book, music and lyrics by Joe DiPeitro and David Bryan. Loosely based on actual events, it concerns Memphis music lover Huey Philips (Carson Higgins, terrific) who is drawn to the lively rhythm and blues songs performed by black singers in the city. When he follows the music to a black club, he is immediately smitten by their lead chanteuse, Felicia Farrell (Renee Jackson), and becomes determined to make her a star. The plot then follows Huey's adventures in becoming Memphis' most popular radio DJ by introducin g white audiences to this new music. Set in the late 1950s and dealing with racial issues of the time, "Memphis" covers the gradual trend of white audiences discovering African-American music in much the same way that "Hairspray", an earlier award-winning musical, did.
The real find in this particular production is Mr. Higgins who is a ball of energy in the role of Huey. In what could have become in lesser hands an annoying character, Higgins makes Huey endearingly goofy and warmly sympathetic throughout. He's also a top-notch singer and dancer bringing real heart to numbers like "The Music of My Soul" as well as the rousing title song. It's disappointing to report, however, that Ms. Jackson is not his ideal match here. While strong vocally, she's a weak actress and shares little chemistry with Higgins resulting in a relationship that never completely registers as real. Far better are supporting players with powerhouse voices including Teren Carter, Jamal Shuriah and David Robbins. Todd L. Underwood has directed smoothly utilizing Ivoryton's stage in creative ways and making all the scene changes flow effortlessly, something that is often an issue at Ivoryton. Musical Director Michael Morris provides a great sound with an orchestra that includes enough musicians to make the crucial difference.
It should be pointed out, however, that the musical, itself, has problems. It may have won the top Tony Award in 2010 but it's important to recall that its weak competition that year included "American Idiot", "Fela" and "Million Dollar Quartet". DiPeitro's book isn't perfect with a story that seems to repeat itself in the second act while Bryan's music, upbeat and lively, begins to all sound alike after the first 30 minutes. In comparison "Hairspray" features a far more varied score and a less heavy-handed approach to the racial themes. That acknowledged, there is no doubt that Ivoryton's production deserves its appreciative audience. Check it out before it closes this weekend.
"Memphis" continues at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, in Ivoryton, Connecticut through August 30. For further information or ticket reservations call the Playhouse box office at 860.767.7318 or visit: www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org .